Learn From the Animals: The Jungle Book

Frank Farley, PhD
Temple University

Lauren Renee Butler
Temple University

A review of The Jungle Book (2016), Director: Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures.

The Jungle Book is one of the most enduring and endearing children’s stories, a classic written by a literary giant, Rudyard Kipling.  But it is also beloved by many adults.  This 2016 movie version is one in a history of depictions of the Jungle Book in film, coloring books, etc.  This contemporary film includes magnificent state-of-the-art computer animations and wonderful voices by the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, the late Garry Shandling, among others.  The animation recreates a jungle reality amazingly, and the central figure, the jungle boy Mowgli, is beautifully played by the 13-year-old Neel Sethi.

The general story is well known, the classic film being Disney’s 1967 version, although this 2016 version adds some important tweaks, as did another movie treatment, the 1997 The Jungle Book, Mowgli and Baloo. A major tweak in the current version is that the main animals talk.  In the 1997 version they did not.

The usual animal characters are here in 2016, the wolf pack which adopted and raised Mowgli, his adoptive mother and father, and a fun-loving band of wolf siblings, including clubs.  Mowgli’s closest non-wolf friends are the rather strict and conventional black panther and protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley’s voice) and the fun-loving super-friend and protector, the lovable bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

Other than Mowgli, there are no humans to be seen in the current film, unlike the 1997 version.  That version focused explicitly on the intrusion into the jungle and Mowgli’s life of an assortment of people, some of whom had bad intentions for him, including one who wanted to capture him for the P.T. Barnum circus!  This 2016 movie is better for sticking to jungle life, avoiding other humans, giving the animals unique voice, and showing a rich social milieu involving a range of wild animals with their own distinctive personalities and contributions to the social psychology of the jungle and their generally high respect for each other and diversity including a human living a natural life with them the psychology of which is a model for all children, a wonderful depiction of human in nature.

Mowgli’s life with most of the animals he encounters is warm, positive, often an example of supportive friendship.  The connectedness of trust and friendship between the boy and the beasts is enhanced in value because of this reach across the species—so many differences yet so much connection.  As for plot and character development and interactions, the film creates a magical balance of material for all ages.  The villainous tiger Shere Khan, who kills Mowgli’s wolf father, and aims to do so to Mowgli, is, with Idris Elba’s voice a most forceful and threatening figure, in the end vanquished with a little help for Mowgli’s friends, each with distinctive strengths and involvement, altogether a team effort with Mowgli at the center.

Some commentary has suggested this movie is too “dark” for children.  We disagree.  There is some violence, certainly, but the resolution of it through cooperation and common goals can be can be seen as an exemplar of dealing with the nature of violence for child viewers.  The current generation of children is growing up onscreen, where rough stuff invades.  Many are routinely exposed to images of violence and “dark” material.  A strong source of fear and anxiety in life is uncertainty, and in this film it could be said the uncertainty is resolved positively, where Shere Khan is vanquished by a band of heroes.  To the movie’s credit, no close friends of Mowgli’s are killed or seriously injured.  His adopted wolf father is killed, of course, but seems not to have been particularly close to the boy.  A child could perhaps process that death without being too invested.  Mowgli possibly shows some post-traumatic growth after his wolf-father’s death and is able to recover and grow from his loss, finding the courage to ultimately face the killer Shere Khan.  The film allows children to gain some understanding of a less-than-perfect-world, and see some social/collaborative means to flourish.

This is altogether a wonderful movie for everyone, including psychologists, who will enjoy the strength of friendships, the strength of character, and the welcoming diversity of Mowgli’s friends, his life, and milieu.

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